Polk Co. curfew extended as officials brace for potentially more unrest

Polk County

POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Law enforcement officials are bracing for more potential unrest as Sheriff Grady Judd extends the county’s curfew Monday night.

People in Polk County should stay home from 8 p.m. – 5 a.m.

Sheriff Judd told reporters Monday, deputies are tracking social media posts alluding to more disruption in the county in the coming days, potentially involving neighborhoods.

“I would tell them, if you value your life, you probably shouldn’t do that in Polk County because the people of Polk County like guns,” said Sheriff Judd. “They have guns. I encourage them to own guns. They’re gonna be in their homes tonight with their guns loaded and if you try to break into their homes to steal, to set fires, I’m highly recommending they blow you back out of the house with their guns.”

The sheriff said law enforcement officials made several arrests Sunday after things took a turn in Lakeland.

“I didn’t get much sleep,” said Debbie Birdwell, whose family owns the Bike Barn.

Windows were smashed at the Bike Barn. Bars likely meant the difference between broken glass and looting.

“It’s sad. It’s sad that it’s come to this,” said Birdwell. “It was a shock to wake up to the call. I also have my business downtown and I was worried about that because of all of the activity downtown.”

A peaceful protest at Munn Park attracted at least 500 people fighting for justice after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Then smaller crowds shut down roads outside the Lakeland Police Department and the intersection of Memorial Blvd. and Florida Ave.

“Our local police officers and deputies said, we noticed cars with out-of-county and out-of-state plates. We saw that the antagonists on Florida and [Memorial] Boulevard, the ones that were generating the energy, were not our local folks,” said Sheriff Judd.

“I feel like people’s voices definitely got heard yesterday after the protest. Even though it did get a little rowdy on Memorial, I still feel like, for the most part, people heard what we wanted to say,” said Mercedes Werbinski, the protest’s organizer whose main priority was maintaining peace on Sunday.

Lakeland police did not intervene when the crowd was gathered outside the police station.

The police department did deploy tear gas at the busy intersection but when the crowds returned to block traffic, Lakeland police stayed away.

When they returned just before 8 p.m., they were joined by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team, which deployed more tear gas and shot rubber bullets.

They ordered the crowd to not only get off the streets but off the surrounding sidewalks.

Werbinski expressed frustration with Lakeland Police Monday. She felt they should have stepped in earlier.

“They should have stopped it before it got that bad and that’s all on them. They cannot put the blame on any of the protesters. They know what antagonizers can do,” she said.

8 On Your Side asked Lakeland Police Chief Ruben Garcia about the tactic used.

He said the plan was well-thought-out and measured.

“For us to respond as quickly as some may think we should have, would have been to inflame the situation,” said Chief Garcia. “We’ve seen that occur time and time again throughout the nation. Sometimes the police needs to respond when it’s time for the police to respond.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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